The Other Side of the Table

You know what a long drive through Western Pennsylvania needs? A pop-punk playlist, a particularly stunning sunset, and a friend to do the driving while you write a blog post about the incredible weekend you just had. Check, check, and check.

My roommate and I drove the nine hours from Washington, D.C. to Toronto, ON on Friday in order to attend Smash Wrestling’s F8tful Eight event on Saturday. The trip was an absolute blast – I absolutely recommend Smash to anyone who finds themselves in Toronto – and it’s hard to go home now. But I learned a lot the last two days, about myself and my perspective, so there’s a lot of work to do when I get back.

I became the Lady J nearly three years ago, simply to create a separate place to discuss my thoughts on wrestling that wasn’t going to annoy my friends who weren’t part of the fandom. What that name means has grown exponentially since then, as I find each aspect of my life becoming more and more tied to the wrestling community. I assume, going into this trip, that I was going to Smash in order to accompany some new fans, advocate for inclusion in their promotion, and see some great matches. But you know what they say about assumptions.

My roommate has two friends from his graduate program that live in or near Toronto, and I found myself sharing a few meals with the three of them. These are brilliant science people, who know little or nothing about wrestling. They have many advanced degrees between them, and one of them had just been working toward becoming an astronaut. I was, intimidated at first, sitting across the breakfast table from all of their knowledge and I felt a little silly saying I was in town for wrestling. But once I did, they asked questions and wanted to discuss the community and my place in it. They wanted to know everything about the PWGrrrlGang and what it’s like being a female fan. One of them told me, when I insinuated what I was doing was nothing compared to becoming an astronaut or being an astrobiologist, that “every community, even science, needs an advocate.” In this community, that advocate is me. I should be proud, she told me. And I am.

Once at the show, I quickly discovered Smash Wrestling didn’t need me to advocate to or for them. They are a self-aware promotion and work hard to create a welcoming environment. The fans are quite diverse and very much like a family – they take care of one another, even if they’re on opposing sides of a match. They love their wrestlers, too, and are grateful to everyone who comes to their home to bless them with the gift of a beautiful match. It felt more like I was meant to be there to learn something than to teach anything. Right now, the PWGrrrlGang is a me, a twitter handle, a t-shirt shop, and a promotion in Canada. But people will adopt it and make it their own. It will evolve and change to fit the needs of the community. I won’t be at the next Smash show because they don’t need me. The PWGrrrlGang is in safe hands there, and I hope Karyn and Dan can help to welcome lots of new faces into the crowd.

I also learned, standing at a merch table, that if you want to have an influence on your community, you have to accept that people are going to be listening. You can’t be shy about who it is that reads your blog or listens to your podcast, even if it’s the promoters or wrestlers themselves. If we want to bring attention to issues we think are important in wrestling, it is not enough to simply discuss them among ourselves as fans. It is essential to be willing to have these conversations with people who have influence or power of their own, to stand up and say in both an eloquent and digestible way what we feel the problems are and how we would like to see them addressed. I endeavor to never become complacent with what I have already achieved, and know there is still more work to be done, more ears to bend, and to speak up whenever I can. More than anything, I hope to encourage other people to do the same. Talk to your local promoters when there is a problem, and also when something is going great. Work toward speaking to the wrestlers you admire at shows: treating them with respect and gratitude can breed the same in return. A mutual admiration society is a great way to create a safe space and an open dialogue, should you need one.

Finally, I found myself sitting with my mentor at a small cafe in my tiny old college town before the six hour drive back home. We spoke at length about what I was doing, and his interests in all of my projects. He has no connection to wrestling as a fan, but finds the sociological aspects to be fascinating. As we discussed the weekend and my experiences, he asked what was next; what was my goal? My answers were long and meandering, as I was really answering them for the first time – even to myself. I thought about sitting across from the scientists in Toronto, and standing next to the wrestlers at Smash, and then looked across the table at him. I thought about how my position has altered in two and a half years, and where I am now. And where I can be.

I know what it’s like to be a female wrestling fan. I know what it’s like to be marginalized, sexualized, harassed, and ignored. I know what the PWGrrrlGang does is important and I know that it will grow with time. I don’t know what it’s like to be a wrestler, or a promoter. I don’t know how to reconcile the things we, as fans, want to see happen at shows in order to feel safe and welcome with the way a wrestling business is run. But I want to. I don’t want to know the finish to a match, or who is winning a title. I want to know how wrestlers feel about working in places where the crowd uses racial slurs. I want to know how promoters deal with crowds or performers who can get out of control. The only way to find these things out is to keep writing, keep talking to people, and do it tirelessly. Maybe there is no perfect solution. There are probably tons of people out there who don’t want to talk to me because they don’t believe in what I do, or they think I expect them to martyr themselves. There might just be, however, a few people who are willing to discuss these things with me. Whatever it is they have to say, I am willing to listen and work with them.

A few months ago I wrote a post about how there were no mentors for women writers, there was no one who could tell me, or anyone like me, what to do in order to get people to listen. There was no precedent for something like the PWGrrrlGang in our community. Now we’re here, on the other side of the table. We’ve done a lot together already. So where do we go next? That’s easy.

We go further.

The Lady J Says

 

Progress: The Art of the Babyface Turn

On my journey to watching all of the shows that Progress Wrestling in the UK has produced, I have hit a major turning point: I’ve just finished Chapter 20. If you HAVEN’T, stop reading now. Trust me – you want to experience this unspoiled.

 

After finishing the main event, and crying my eyes out (not an exaggeration – that was some serious emotional catharsis from a wrestling/storytelling perspective) I had pages upon pages of notes. My Facelock Feministas podcast co-host, Courtney, and I will talk about all of them, I’m sure, on the next episode. But there was one thing I’ve been turning over and over again in my head.

While a tremendous credit is owed to Jimmy Havoc for helming the storyline that played out from Chapter 2 to Chapter 20, as well as his opponent Will Ospreay (who remarkably ALSO debuted on Chapter 2) and Progress MC & co-owner Jim Smallman, there are a lot of supporting characters who played pivotal roles in the journey of the Progress title and, arguably, one of the best story arcs in independent wrestling. It featured some of the biggest names in wrestling today, like Marty Scurll and Zack Sabre Jr. It gave some of us foreigners a chance to fall in love with UK wrestlers we didn’t know as much about like Rampage Brown, Dave Mastiff, and Paul Robinson. It even gave me a window into guys I knew only a little about, like Noam Dar and Mark Andrews, and allowed me the chance to become a real fan of their work. But as someone who was guaranteed to develop an affinity for both Havoc and Ospreay as performers during this 18-chapter run, who thought she knew how she would feel when it was all “over”, it was The London Riots who stole my heart.

The London Riots ALSO debuted in Chapter 2, with a match against the Velocity Vipers (one of whom is a terribly young Will Ospreay). The Riots are two big guys with a powerful moveset and a mean streak a mile wide, something that doesn’t necessarily attract me as a fan when it comes to tag-team wrestling. (I am not, for example, terribly interested in The Authors of Pain or War Machine.) But two common threads that exists through all of the Progress roster – singles competitors and tag teams, both men and women alike – is their desire to put on a stellar, show-stealing performance and the stunning intelligence with which they approach wrestling. The London Riots are no exception to this rule, creating vicious, exciting matches that both infuriate fans and stimulate their imaginations. Their ability to wrestle any number of tag teams or singles competitors and routinely deliver some of the best tag matches I’ve ever had the privilege to watch is, therefore, not surprising in the least.

Rob Lynch and James Davis put their first-class abilities to good use during the story involving Jimmy Havoc and his run with the Progress title, though it’s entirely possible to push them from the forefront of your mind while you’re watching. This is not to say they are not incredible, or that they are unimportant, but rather that they seamlessly fold their gifts into the larger story. They enhance everything they touch without pulling focus, which is such a subtle nuance I struggle to find another instance of it in my wrestling lexicon that is remotely comparable. They start out as the Monster Heels of Progress, wrecking every tag team opponent the promotion throws at them. The fans boo them and turn their backs when they enter The Garage and Jim Smallman becomes increasingly more frustrated as he and his business partners search for a way to eliminate the Riots from their roster forever. Naturally, one way is to split them up, with Lynch losing a Last Man Standing match to Danny Garnell and James Davis being taken to his limit before eventually overcoming the still-babyface Jimmy Havoc. It is therefore all the more painful to see Havoc not only turn on the Progress team and its fanbase, but to align himself with these awful heels, whom the crowd thought were gone for good. When the London Riots lift Jimmy up onto their shoulders with the Progress title over his head, the temperature in the room seems to drop several degrees: a long, hard winter has set in at Progress.

Over the next five chapters, Havoc’s enforcers bring chaos wherever they go, including to the ENDVR shows, to rain suffering down on the likes of Eddie Dennis and the Bhangra Knights. Their enjoyment at assisting Havoc in causing chaos throughout Progress seems to abruptly halt when Jimmy brings a knife to a fist fight in order to torture Will Ospreay after the Riots beat Screw Indy Wrestling, Project Ego, and the Swords of Essex to become the number 1 contenders for the tag titles.

It is here you see a crack in the Riots’ facade – that Havoc is willing to go far past the kind of punishment the Riots are comfortable inflicting creates a separation between them, however subtle. It is therefore really no surprise when two chapters later we see Paul Robinson sacrifice James Davis in order to save Havoc and his title reign in a Career vs. Title match against Ospreay, Noam Dar, and team FSU. As the Riots stand over the Progress logo in the middle of the ring, that cold feeling suddenly dissipates and something shifts; they seem genuinely devastated to have to leave, and the crowd seems sorry to send them off. They may have been two of the biggest baddies in the promotion, but they still BELONG to the Progress crowd in a strange way. Davis and Lynch hesitate before heading up the steps to the exit and it’s hard not to feel that we’ve witnessed an important change.

Over the next three chapters, the tag titles move from FSU to The Faceless, and it seems clear that the Riots have left a sizable hole in the tag team division at Progress. Meanwhile, Havoc manages to retain his title against the likes of Rampage Brown, Dave Mastiff, Marty Scurll, Noam Dar, and even the chosen one of Progress, Will Ospreay. After winning a particularly nasty six-way match, Havoc by Morgan Webster that it’s always best to have an insurance policy.

Enter the London Riots.

This is one of the biggest pops I’ve ever heard from the Progress crowd while watching the shows on demand. The London Riots belong to this crowd. They have been with Progress since the beginning. They have bled and bumped and fought on to entertain these people, and now they truly are the Progress fans’ team. Jim Smallman welcomes them back with open arms, and announces that Havoc and his henchman Paul Robinson will face off against the Riots at the inaugural Super Strong Style 16 tournament.

The London Riots vs. Jimmy Havoc and Paul Robinson is my favorite match in Progress thus far, and might actually be my favorite match of all time. Seems a pretty lofty claim to make, but if you know anything regarding what I love most about wrestling, it doesn’t seem so strange at all. It’s one of the most brutal matches this side of hardcore that I’ve ever seen, which falls directly into my wheelhouse as a fan. In terms of storytelling and character work, though, it is completely brilliant. The London Riots might be the only comparable characters in Progress (up to this point) to Jimmy Havoc in terms of madness. Obviously, they draw a line far sooner than he does on what they think is fair play in terms of the sort of violence they inflict on others on the roster, but they are 100% willing to put their own bodies – their own well being – on the line in order to achieve their goal. Knowing that Jimmy has no limits is like being granted permission to forgo their own limits as well. They even take the time to work outside of their normal moveset, which feels like a nod at anyone who would ask “what have you two been doing the last three shows” because the answer is, of course, plotting revenge. When Rob Lynch uses an Acid Rainmaker on Havoc, it proves that they were paying attention when he was their leader, and that there is no one you want less as an enemy than someone who used to be your right hand man.

Five chapters earlier, Noam Dar showed us all that Jimmy Havoc was fallible. Even though he didn’t win the match, he got Havoc to tap out, and we all saw it. What the Riots proved was that somewhere deep down inside, the old Havoc – the one James Davis put away in a hardcore match back in Chapter 8 – still existed. He could be weakened, he could be surprised, and he could be defeated. It took two of them, their District Line finisher, and the cheers of 700 Progress fans but Havoc was pinned right there in the middle of the ring at the end of the match. The London Riots were heroes. They had widened the crack that had been created by Noam Dar and would eventually break Havoc in half thanks to Will Ospreay. When the Riots joined Ospreay at ringside for the main event of Chapter 20, you knew the end was near – Ospreay couldn’t beat Havoc alone, but he was flanked by the only two men who had managed the unthinkable since Havoc’s title reign began.

Heel turns are awesome. They can be a ton of fun to watch, and can create heroes out of mere men (i.e. Havoc & Ospreay). But if you want to see something truly amazing, take a heel that the crowd loves to hate, someone sick and twisted in their own rite, and find a way to turn them babyface. Watching a heel get his comeuppance is great fun. Watching a babyface finally receive the admiration from the crowd that they always deserved is even better.

Thank you, Riots, indeed.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

PROGRESS: Watch Me Burn

So, I finally got to “That Part”.

Knowing that I had already expressed an appreciation for the character of Jimmy Havoc, many of the individuals who’d already experienced all of PROGRESS to date were eagerly anticipating my watching Chapters 9 and 10 over the past week. I don’t think they were disappointed by my live Twitter reactions in the moment as the major story that ends PROGRESS’s 2013 year unfolded before me. I was genuinely surprised, even though everyone had clearly provided me with signs that something big was coming.

Once Chapter 10 was closed, and the corresponding episode of Facelock Feministas was recorded, I had some time to digest what I had seen and how I really felt about it. Unpacking your feelings about wrestling never gets easier, no matter how long you’ve been watching it or how much of it you’ve seen. If anything, it gets more complicated as you become more honest with yourself. Perhaps that’s also a sign of age – a willingness to see even the ugly parts of yourself reflected back at you in your favorite art form, and forcing yourself to confront those things head on.

Before I go any further, I have two requests for you, dear reader. First, make sure you’ve actually WATCHED the first 10 chapters of PROGRESS, or I’m about to ruin the whole thing for you. Second, watch this video. It really helped to put some things in perspective for me, and I can tell you right now, it’s going to color the way I watch the rest of this story unfold in a major way.

Going into this experience of watching all of PROGRESS, I promised myself I would make a concerted effort to watch everything – all of the matches, all of the promos, any content PROGRESS provided via their On Demand service, I would consume. That meant seeing where my limit was when it came to Havoc’s hardcore matches. I was always fascinated by this kind of match, but assumed my own usual physical response to the sight of blood (light-headedness and fainting) meant it wouldn’t be possible to watch all the way through. And yet two hardcore matches have occurred so far, and I’ve watched them both completely. Perhaps a debt is owed to Lucha Underground for desensitizing me to blood, or at least for helping me to understand blood is a tool in the wrestling world, and if used properly it can enhance the telling of a story.

The story in question is not hard to follow. Havoc’s character is a weirdo, an outcast at the start. He’s a hardcore wrestler who wants to get involved at PROGRESS, so he has to prove that he can work the style of the promotion. Even though he doesn’t win his matches, each time he steps into the ring the crowd is fully behind him. Each match is a thing of beauty, each opponent elevated for having worked with him. When a real problem threatens PROGRESS, the existence of the London Riots and the mayhem they bring with them, Havoc is put into a hardcore match with one of their members to teach them a lesson. Let them step into the ring with someone who takes great enjoyment in causing them pain. In the end it’s Jimmy who takes a brunt of the force and ends up losing the match – yet again. So when he finally has had enough and unloads on Jim Smallman in Chapter 9, it’s really not that shocking. What is really amazing, though, is the promo he cuts on Smallman, and everyone in charge at PROGRESS. He goes on to make good on his threat of doing what he wants in Chapter 10, cashing in his contract for a match with an opponent and a stipulation of his choosing against then-champion Mark Andrews, and winning both his first match for the promotion and the PROGRESS title in the process.

While watching the YouTube video that summarizes this story and Havoc’s first two years at PROGRESS, it suddenly occurred to me why I don’t hate this heel version of Jimmy Havoc, but rather adore him. It’s so simple, I’m surprised it required any ‘unpacking’ at all, really: you can’t shame someone for being different and then try to capitalize on the thing that sets them apart from you and not expect to be burned for it.

Any marginalized group of people can tell you this story. There’s so many variations on it, the fact that it took this long to figure out what a wrestling version of it would be is the only thing shocking about it. I deal with it within our wrestling community every day, and I’m sure many other writers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ can tell you the same thing. Day after day we get passed over or considered less-than because we aren’t white males with a specific perspective on wrestling. We’re mocked, we’re trolled, and then when publications find out they need a more diverse writing team, we’re absolutely bombarded with requests for work. Unpaid of course, but it’ll be good for exposure. The same thing happens from the outside looking into the wrestling world, too. Reputable publications never want to be pitched for pieces even in the vicinity of the professional wrestling world, but the second something “newsworthy” happens involving someone with the last name of McMahon, my inbox is full of requests (again, unpaid) because they know my turnover is quick and I know what I’m talking about.

“Fix our problem, but know that we think your art form is still illegitimate.”

Pink chair shots all around, absolutely.

So it turns out that it’s not Jimmy Havoc’s dark eyeliner or his Doc Martens or his love of AFI that makes me his fan. It’s the story. It’s him taking back control not only of his career in PROGRESS, but who validates him as a performer – who gives what he does meaning. He becomes powerful simply by being undeniable and being true to himself. He reclaims his mean streak and, as a result, takes his rightful place at the top of PROGRESS. Sure, in the world of pro wrestling storytelling, Jimmy Havoc is a bad guy – a heel. He beat up one of the promoters, someone who wasn’t prepared (nor should have to be) to defend himself. He poured lighter fluid on a wrestler who’d just wrestled two matches and won his first championship. But he’s also probably one of the most honest characters you’ll see in the wrestling world’s modern age.

“I’m going to do what I want to do,” he says over Smallman’s beaten form, splayed out on the canvas.

I hope you do, Jimmy. I hope we all do.

The Lady J Says

Imposter Syndrome

A few days ago, my roommate (who works for NASA) was discussing a concept known as Imposter Syndrome as it relates to the science world.

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In this case, she was discussing how women feel, even with post-doctorate degrees and fully-funded research projects, that they will eventually be discovered to be imposters in the science community. It’s something many of the women she works with are constantly struggling to overcome.

As I was listening to her speak, I realized that I struggle with my own Imposter Syndrome in the pro-wrestling world as a writer. I’m sure there are plenty of writers (particularly non-male-identifying) who suffer the same thoughts: that what we do is somehow less than, or that suddenly the community will wake up and realize our opinions are invalid.

I always try to qualify my writing with my own experiences or with my “place” in the wrestling community. How many of my posts have included the phrase “Now, I’m not a wrestler/promoter/referee/etc”? Plenty, though I’ve never counted. I make an attempt when creating these pieces to be forthcoming about how much information or experience I possess, and whether or not my opinion can truly be subjective.

Recently, Tommy End made some waves on Twitter with the following statement:

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I’m going to step right over the use of the phrase “valid opinion” in order to make a slightly different point here about objectivity. I believe Tommy’s argument here was actually about the fact that people who comment on wrestling can only give an outsider’s opinion, which lacks a certain insight having never wrestled a match/booked a show before. That is fair, as you are looking in from the outside instead of the other way around. But what I see as a fan and a writer is that Tommy is also forgetting that as a someone who is a wrestler, often times his own opinion (and not his specifically, but anyone inside the business) can be equally as subjective because their own preferences/experiences color their opinions, just as a fan’s does. The only difference is that his opinion is colored by his physical experience instead of his voyeur-based preference.

As a fan and writer, this argument is not entirely unlike the one I run into often regarding my role as a “feminist writer” with an “agenda” (oooh, scary!) I’ve been told many, many times that I am attempting to view wrestling through a lens that it was never intended for. Naturally my counter to that is that none of human history was ever intended to be viewed through the lens of strong female empowerment, so get over it. But the implication there is that the male perspective on wrestling is more valid than the female because they are the “target audience”. And how often has we, as readers of articles and consumers of content, found that men are more likely to rush into half-baked articles, unafraid of their lack of research or proper sources before hitting “publish”? That’s not to say there aren’t women who are also guilty of it, but in an environment where the validity of a woman’s opinion is already in question, many of us feel a need to double down on the “science” side of our work, the quotes, the research, etc., before allowing the general public in.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating for anyone who is so inclined to suddenly stop checking themselves. I AM however advocating for everyone else to stop wrecking themselves by giving in to a furious desire to be “first”. (This was recently discussed on the Talking Sheet Podcast rather eloquently by hosts Les Moore, Hugh Little, and Sealia Bloom.) But I am also advocating for women, for anyone who is not a cis-gendered white dude, to find their validity. Take a deep breath and silence that voice inside you that says someone is going to “find you out”. You are a wrestling fan, and a talented content-creator. You’re not an imposter; you’re the real deal.

The Lady J Says

British, Strong, & Stylized: Three Gentlemen of Progress

I’ve recently had an influx in new followers and new readers of the blog asking who I am and where I came from. The story of The Lady J is not a very interesting tale, but it does date back over two years to a few articles and videos I was doing for Cageside Seats. The one that seemed to garner the most response (and helped me to find my voice) was one on the Art of the Promo. That (VERY LONG) article came out of my own training in theatre and creative writing, which is the lens through which I have always viewed professional wrestling. I tend toward promotions that favor a cohesive narrative that intertwine all members of their roster, but also enjoy cards where the storytelling that is happening inside each match is equally compelling. My favorite thing, though, is an exquisitely delivered promo. We don’t see them as much anymore; it’s almost as if the true art of a great promo is being replaced by things that are heavily scripted or under-valued in their contribution to the show as a whole. While I love the acting work on Lucha Underground, arguably the promotion I follow most closely, the vignettes we see there are not quite the same thing as a good, old-fashioned wrestling promo. Need an example? Funny you should ask…

Yesterday, a YouTube clip from the Progress Wrestling promotion out of the UK popped up on my Twitter feed. I think I watched it three or four times. Check it out for yourself:

 This might end up going down as the best out-of-ring promo of 2016, and a lot of people are going to sleep on it because of its simplicity. Even if you are not a fan of these three gentlemen, even if you don’t follow Progress, even if you’re not a UK wrestling fan, there’s something here you need to be looking at.

First of all, make sure you take note of what ISN’T in this promo: there are no fans, there is no giant Progress banner behind them (though Dunne is holding the Progress title), nobody is in their wrestling gear, and no one is yelling. The reason there’s nothing flashy about this promo is simple: it doesn’t have to be. Progress itself as a promotion doesn’t require confetti and glitter to bring in new fans – it already has a massive following the world over. And these three fellows don’t need your attention either; they already have it. They have your attention, your titles, the keys to your car, the deed to your house, and you might not realize it yet, but your wallet is missing, too.

Regardless of what their in-ring personas are like (and we do get clips of Dunne and Trent Seven getting pretty mouthy with the Progress audience), in this promo there is a sense of both calm and confidence. The greatest thing a heel has ever done in a promo is speak softly and slowly. They say you catch more bees with honey – and that’s the key. Not to be sweet, but to lay a trap so easy to fall into it would never occur to us to give it a second look.

A trio of well-dressed British men are standing before a brick wall, coolly explaining that they are not in possession of the Progress titles for the honor of it. It’s about power – those titles are going to get them OUT of Progress, out of the UK to bigger, more lucrative contracts in other parts of the world. You don’t need to like it or even understand it, that’s just how it is. They even TOLD you they were going to do that, you just didn’t want to believe them. They’re smug and cocky and it’s absolutely BRILLIANT heel work.

I could surely write pages and pages of praise for Trent Seven’s ability on a mic. This man can talk, regardless of his affiliations, but his slimy, conniving heel brilliance is unequaled. Meanwhile, Pete Dunne is lousy with brash swagger and attitude, akin to an over-confident 1920’s mob boss on the brink of either domination or termination. The key to this entire interview, though, is in the last 20 seconds when we get exactly six words out of Tyler Bate, who has spent the entire promo looking over his shoulder. The most recent convert to the dark side has plenty of reason to be concerned who or what might be behind him (no spoilers here) and conveniently masks his discomfort with aggressive misdirection before walking off.

Think about all of the stories told here: Trent’s reasoning for abandoning Moustache Mountain for British Strong Style, Pete Dunne’s plans for the Progress title, and Tyler’s inner battle with his own heel behavior. None of it reaches out and slaps you in the face, though. Every second of this video is calculated and smooth, just like the characters steering it.

The icing on this little promo cake of deliciousness? This video is two minutes at fifty-two seconds long. I bet at 2:53, you were figuring out how to get your eyes on the Progress show in question – and probably all of their past and future products, too.

Well done, gents. Lady approved.

The Lady J Says

This is Not A Moment, It’s the Movement

After a historic event at WWE’s Hell in a Cell pay-per-view on Sunday (and, regardless of your opinion of the final match, the booking of a women’s HIAC match to go on last was, in fact, historic) Monday was a day for reflection.

I spent a significant portion of Halloween afternoon discussing with friends the greater environment of the wrestling community and the landscape for women in the industry. The major topics included training opportunities for women, and how many (if not most) schools are run by men, with much of the lessons based in teaching women how to wrestle utilizing men instead of other women as training partners. This often times comes in direct conflict with the way women are booked, with an emphasis on women’s matches instead of the intergender matches most women learned their craft in. This becomes an issue when veteran women on the independent scene, who have made a career of wrestling other women who usually fall into a certain weight/height bracket, are given super green opponents whose only experience is in wrestling men who are often much taller/heavier than they are. This, clearly, means the methods and styles of wrestling will be in direct conflict.

It also seems clear that another contributing factor to the above-mentioned scenario involving training/booking issues for women is that there are so few promotions and training schools run by women, or that have multiple women in positions of authority or power. This is not to say that there aren’t men in the industry, promoters and wrestlers, who advocate for women, who make a concerted effort to regularly book a variety of new, up-and-coming, and veteran women in both intra- and inter-gender matches. These individuals have certainly created opportunities for women where there weren’t before, and continue to help advance equality in the wrestling industry.

Last night, while watching Monday Night RAW, I read a blog post written by Gabe Sapolsky, whose title is current VP of DGUSA, according to his Facebook, which also lists him as co-founder of EVOLVE and creator of Ring Of Honor. In it, Sapolsky discusses Charlotte & Sasha Banks’ HIAC match in terms of breaking barriers and creating new opportunities for women in wrestling. He encourages women getting started in the wrestling industry to take advantage of an upcoming wrestling seminar with WWN. This is a great opportunity and I hope WWN sees plenty of women at their next round of tryouts. I also hope they actually book some of the women who do tryout for them. My issues, however, is with the broad strokes Sapolsky takes in painting the battles women have been fighting in wrestling has being won.

In his post, Sapolsky uses phrases like “The glass ceiling is gone”, “Opportunity is everywhere”, and “The playing field is level”. I know that to some people, seeing women “main event” a WWE pay-per-view product or compete inside a cage structure like Hell in a Cell seems like the crowning achievement of the women’s wrestling movement. However, it is by no means the end of the line. The playing field is most certainly NOT level, and while that glass ceiling may be cracked, it is definitely not disappeared. Changing a highly visible product like WWE to reflect a more equal playing field for men and women is an achievement that will be remembered for a long time. Hopefully, it will inspire a whole generation of young women to explore opportunities in the wrestling industry moving forward. But the reality is, it is not any easier for women to do so, and the opportunities have not actually increased in number. It would be more honest to say that the oneway to make the necessary, further changes at the indie level is for more women to attend training programs and tryouts, thus creating a larger pool of women within the industry to work with and creating a need for more women’s matches and titles.

The other issue that Sapolsky illustrates, though it seems unknowingly, is his introduction. In it, he reminisces about a shared meal with Adam Pearce and Dave Prazak, over which Prazak discusses his vision for a women’s promotion which would eventually transform into the very real, Chicago-based SHIMMER. Though the opportunity that SHIMMER gives to women is unquestionable, what is so clearly illustrated here is that even in the supposedly “level playing field” of wrestling, the credit for SHIMMER is due to a man (even though the promotion is listed as being run by him and retired wrestler Allison Danger). Now, as I mentioned earlier, the movement of equality in wrestling is not without our male-gendered counterparts and there are many instances where opportunities were created with the help of some wonderful men, including the creation of women’s promotions like SHIMMER and its sister promotion, SHINE (also run by Prazak, along with wrestler Lexie Fyfe). The problem lies in creating promotions in which women are in positions of power not just alongside men, and not only when the roster is entirely female. If it is fair to say that a man can run an intergendered roster, why can’t a women? And why are there not more wrestling schools helmed by women? Equality is not a single-tiered field in which opportunities balance at half female and half male. It is a multi-leveled endeavor, in which there must the same opportunities for women on the business side as well as the creative and performance side.

To date, two of the biggest names on the business side in wrestling are Stephanie McMahon and Dixie Carter, the Yin and Yang of successful women in the industry. While McMahon is credited with playing a major role in the recent Women’s Revolution in WWE, Carter shoulders the blame for the failures of the entire company because of her unwillingness to yield in her business strategies. This is not to say I agree with the general publics opinions of these two women, or that I subscribe to these schools of thought, but when we consider women in powerful roles in the industry, it’s hard not to assign them to either column A or column B. In one hand you have a strong head for business who is only being given credit for what the employees of her own gender do, and in the other you have a woman whose name will go down in history as being synonymous with stubbornness and poor business acumen.

I don’t know Gabe Sapolsky personally. I have never met him, and know very little about him. I try not to pass judgement based on others opinions of him or the companies he is associated with. But I do hope that beyond the narrow scope of his posting, he is also having dinner with women who are looking to take on a larger role in this industry. What someone writes in a blogpost like the one you’re reading now, or the one Sapolsky posted yesterday, is only a tiny pinprick into the larger scope of a person’s true perspective. I reserve the right to believe that someone like Sapolsky, with his ambition, his experience, and his love of wrestling, wants to exist in a world where the playing field IS level, where there truly IS no glass ceiling. But to suggest such a time is now upon us discredits the necessity of further hard work and dedication from all of the up-and-coming individuals, especially the women, in the business.

Wrestling has been, to date, the business of good old boys. It is probable that, with every inch of success the movement for equality gains, there are those on inside who hope it will be the last they must give to satisfy us. But there is always further to go. Those men who are truly advocating for equality will offer up the knowledge they have gained from their own experiences, and help to elevate women not just as wrestlers or managers, but as referees, trainers, promoters, and leaders in this industry.

Two days ago I saw two women wrestle inside the Hell in a Cell structure as the final match of a WWE pay-per-view card. That is how far we have come; that is where our fight for equality has taken us today. Where will we go tomorrow?

– The Lady J

An Artist Debuts

This past weekend was an absolute whirlwind of wrestling for me. It was my first time making the trip to see two separate promotions in two separate cities on back to back days. If you’re interested in checking out NOVA Pro’s NOVA Project 2 pre-show, that’s up here on the Facelock Feministas YouTube channel. If you caught Chikara’s The Black Goodbye either live or on Facebook, just know I’m going to do a blog post about that later on in the week.

My friend Kate (who most of you know as MakeItLoud on Twitter, and from her fabulous RAW Breakdown Project) and I have had plenty of time lately with all of the long car rides we’ve been taking to discuss wrestling at great lengths. We’ve talked about bookings, about promotions, about storytelling, about women as wrestlers, creatives, and fans. But the topic we seem to keep returning to is the unique relationship between the performers themselves and the fanbase. In wrestling, the way we as fans interact with promotions and wrestlers is unlike the way the fans of just about anything else interact with the things they are a fan of. Not only are these individuals and companies available to us through social media and video productions that are widely accessible, but also through live and in-person performances and interactions. Many fans feel a connection with specific promotions or performers, and while most often that manifests itself in terms of admiration, some cool fan art, and really wild cheers at live shows, it can also contort into a sense of entitlement and ownership.

Spoiler alert: I don’t know any wrestlers personally. You could argue my most direct connection to any wrestler is through attendance at the NOVA Pro shows and through doing the podcast. I don’t know anything about these people’s personal lives and we don’t socialize outside of that environment. I am just a fan. But I feel a deep sense of pride in them when they achieve something within this industry – even without titles or tournaments. When they have a particularly stupendous match and you can see it on their face afterwards how proud they are, it’s infectious.

I’m a lady with a blog and a podcast. I like to discuss the performance aspect of wrestling (see also: my Facelock Feministas review of the Weapons of Mass Destruction match on Lucha Underground.) I like to discuss the gender biases within the industry and within the fanbase (see also: the #PWGrrrlGang.) I also like to have fun, which is why – if you are a wrestler – there is a chance you’ve heard me talking about your butt on Twitter. Sorry. (#NotSorry) I am deeply appreciative of the fact that the first (and hopefully only) person who has called me out on this in person is Cedric Alexander.

I’ve seen Cedric Alexander perform live in three different promotions now: I saw him at AAW in Chicago back in June, I saw him wrestle at Chikara’s King of Trios earlier this month, and for the better part of this summer, Cedric was appearing at the monthly NOVA pro shows, wrestling our own fan favorites as well as outside talent, like Shane Strickland. Cedric never once had a bad match with anyone. Cedric’s style, his presence both in the ring and outside of it, and his willingness to interact with fans whether they are lining up for an autograph and photo or yelling Kota Ibushi’s name at him while he’s wrestling, paint a picture of someone who is truly dedicated to his art form. That’s the best way I can describe Cedric: he’s an artist.

When he was announced as being a part of the Cruiserweight Classic, it was natural for me to cheer for him. Before a single episode had aired, none of us were 100% sure what the outcome would be – not only who would win, but what the prize would be. I had hope that Cedric would do well, whatever the bigger picture might have in store for all of the participants. So to then discover that while he did not win the tournament outright, that he WOULD be debuting today, September 19th, on Monday Night RAW as part of the new Cruiserweight division made me incredibly proud. Not all wrestlers have the same goals or aspirations, but we as their fans and supporters hope that they make their craft sustainable; we want them to be able to do nothing but wrestle and feed their families through their art. We know that for many of them, working with WWE is not only a childhood dream, but the place where money and wrestling come together to create that sustainability.

From my tiny place within this giant industry, all I can hope is that hardworking individuals who genuinely love their fans and want to create a body of beautiful work with a variety of opponents are the people who reap the rewards. The current list of cruiserweights making up this new division is quite diverse – the styles and background of each competitor speak for themselves – but I feel strongly that Cedric will rise as a leader among them. I look forward to what their division will bring as a whole to RAW, and who they may inspire to pursue a career in wrestling. They have also left a sizable hole in the independent scene, and I eagerly anticipate who will fill the space they’ve left behind. (I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the new best booty of the indies, of course. Don’t think I’ve totally turned into a mush.)

It is hard to be a wrestling fan a lot of the time. It’s an expensive fandom to exist in where your heart will be broken, bad decisions will be made, other fans will make you crazy, and people you care deeply for will get injured. You can often feel like a tiny, unheard voice shouting amidst a sea of other opinionated characters, with just as much passion or fervor as the next person, but no one to listen. Sometimes the nonsense that goes on will make you want to walk away from the whole thing. Kate & I have joked we should make a shirt that says “Your fave is problematic and your fave is pro wrestling.”

I’m so very proud to say my favorite isn’t problematic.

Mine is Cedric Alexander.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

 

The Tale of Two Districts

The school district on Long Island that I attended from first grade through senior year of high school was huge. It’s one of New York State’s largest, not only in number of enrolled students, which currently exceeds 15,000, but it’s also sprawling in terms of square miles. When I was still very young, the district set about redrawing the borders of the areas that fed into our twelve elementary schools to accommodate what was considered an influx of school children in our area. To prevent one school, for example, from ending up with class sizes close to forty while another had classes with only 15 students, they shuffled everyone around. This meant that when I was 9, I lost half of my classmates to other schools, and started fourth grade with a classroom full of unfamiliar faces.

Then in sixth grade, the district voted to make even larger changes: they were going to build a second high school and a fourth middle school. This meant we ended up with double of everything: sports teams, music groups, extra curricular clubs, etc. Everyone in the district predicted we’d eventually fully split in half (as it is, half of the students never meet the other half.) At some point it would become clear that the newer houses with the wealthier families were feeding into one high school and wouldn’t want to pay taxes to the other school where the lower income families lived.

I couldn’t help but see the similarity of my old public school district with what is currently happening in WWE. It seemed entirely sensible that as the roster grew, not just the main roster but the NXT roster as well, it was necessary to accommodate that by creating more unique screen time opportunities to the performers. What better way to do that than to separate the two programs of Monday Night RAW and SmackDown Live into independent programs with entirely separate rosters. Now there were more chances for each wrestler to  actually perform for the WWE Universe, both live and at home.

What this split, at first, was lacking in was the ultimate goal any wrestling promotion needs to move the action along: something worth fighting for. Storylines regularly can create motivation for wrestlers, but in the end it is the promise of being a champion that drives everyone. Immediately after the draft occurred we were presented with the following issues: the tag teams and female wrestlers on the SmackDown Live roster did not have a title to compete for, and the men on Monday Night RAW did not have a major title to set their sights on.

The day after Battleground, Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon announced Monday Night RAW would have it’s own major title, the Universal Championship, which was crowned at SummerSlam in August. This past Sunday at BackLash, the first SmackDown Live exclusive pay-per-view post-brand split, a new Women’s Champion and Tag Team Champions for the Tuesday night program were crowned. With the coming of the Cruiserweight Division to RAW in the next few weeks (and what is a new division without its own title?) it is likely that WWE will have two major brands, with a combined roster of 86 performers and nine titles. NINE TITLES.

A lot of arguments were made before the WWE draft happened about the benefits of dividing the roster up in a myriad of ways, not the least of which was having certain divisions, like the women or the tag teams, being exclusive to one program. It was clear, though, when the rules of the draft were released that the rosters would essentially be mirror images of one another. For the first few weeks this felt fine, but now that there are an equal number of titles on each program, it feels like an exact replica of my school district.

The rosters, at this moment, really are still carbon copies of one another: two serious, strong willed women divisions with ex-NXT stars as champs; two tag team divisions based in being the comedy act of the roster with violent heels challenging for the titles; mid-card men’s singles titles held by individuals with pretty blonde wives who’ve held other titles and are not in their first reign, turning previously silly storylines into vicious battles; and two ex-Shield babyface/tweeners who have been cheated out of their main titles by indie sweethearts and are now looking for redemption or revenge.

Of course, the stories aren’t EXACTLY the same, and there is something or someone worth watching on both programs. However, two problems immediately jump out. First of all, the limited rosters per division mean the potential for recycled storylines or never-ending feuds between performers. Second, what is the value of one championship when another just like it exists somewhere else? What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at the tag divisions.

Currently, the RAW tag champions are The New Day, and the longest reigning tag champions for that particular belt (previously the WWE World Tag Team Championship which was, ironically, developed for the SmackDown roster in 2002.) Alongside Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods are only 4 other tag teams: Enzo Amore and Big Cass, Epico and Primo of the Shining Stars, Goldust and R-Truth of the Golden Truth, and Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. Meanwhile, on SmackDown, the newly-crowned champions of Heath Slater and Rhyno have 6 potential opponents to face: Aiden English and Simon Gotch of the Vaudevillains, Chad Gable and Jason Jordan of American Alpha, Fandango and Tyler Breeze of Breezango, Jimmy and Jey Uso, Konnor and Viktor of the Ascension, and Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley of the Hype Bros. Keeping this in mind, why wouldn’t it be in, say, The Hype Bros best interest to ask to be released from SmackDown in order to hedge their bets at RAW? Or if Anderson and Gallows find that being outnumbered by the New Day to be unfavorable, why not just roll into SmackDown and take the tag titles from Slater and Rhyno?

Also of note: the way the talent was distributed between the two promotions. Arguably all of the tag teams on the SmackDown roster have elevated their division and have found success in getting over with the crowd, with perhaps the Ascension being the only exception. On RAW, New Day, Anderson and Gallows, and Enzo and Cass leave Golden Truth and the Shining Stars in the dust in terms of being over. With such a small division, you’d expect them all to be over, or at least at the same level, instead of there being such inequality with the crowd. Considering all of this, it’s easy to see the brand new SmackDown titles as the more important ones, even though RAW‘s titles have more history, because there’s more talent, more general popularity, and more potential for diversity in booking.

Now, if WWE had decided to keep their WWE World Heavyweight championship on RAW, maybe alongside the tag titles and the incoming Cruiserweight division, while elevating the IC title on SmackDown with the US title and the entire women’s division, there would still be something for every viewer on both programs, but no need to create new titles (except, as previously stated, one for the cruiserweight.) Then, between 86 individuals there would only be 6 titles – a far better ratio, in my opinion. Also, having one title per division means there is a best – there is one goal. All of the women fight for one title. All of the tag teams fight for one title.

There’s some things I didn’t mention in my comparison between WWE and my school district. First of all, both high schools compete as if they are in their own district. Any time there is cause for competition – whether it be in sports, test scores, music competitions – the schools are going head-to-head. But to the outside world, they are still one district, and as such a win for one is a win for the whole district. The difference here is that WWE isn’t in competition with other companies, not really anyway. While many other wrestling promotions have found successes for themselves and wrestling as an industry becomes popular again with mass markets, no one is functioning at WWE’s level. That could be a good reason to pit two version of the main roster against one another, but not if they rarely face off, and have enough titles on each program to basically be self-sufficient.

I also didn’t mention that in the time leading up to my generation’s influx of children in that area, the district was working on paring down their expenses, because there was less of a need. Not too long ago, WWE was spending a lot of time unifying titles and cleaning up the remnants of a time when there were two rosters, or competing companies with rival titles. Also, some [redacted] years since my graduation, the tide has turned again. The district has closed down two elementary schools and that middle school they built during my time there. As much as WWE’s roster split is fitting for the massive roster they are currently sporting, it is only a matter of time before that changes, too. It will likely be years before we see the WWE roster shrink enough to warrant a move away from two unique programs, but that possibility still exists in the future, at some unpredictable time. Then what?

There’s one major issue with the two rosters that can’t be drawn in parallel to anything else, though, and that is the sheer volume of wrestling content that exists in the world right now. Most large promotions have some sort of online or DVD components now so you can check out what they’re doing, regardless of where in the world you are. Live in Texas but want to check out Chikara? No worries. Live in the UK but want to see BOLA? Not a problem. When we step back and look at how the industry is absolutely flooded with content, it becomes hard to motivate yourself to check out a second night of WWE doing the same basic thing. If the rosters had unique divisions, that would be a good incentive to tune in on Tuesday – to see the Women, or the Tag Teams, or the Cruiserweights. But to see a carbon copy of the way WWE books shows, just with different wrestlers…that’s not motivation to do anything except be anywhere but my couch on Tuesday nights.

I think it’s human nature to try to solve the problems that exist before us without worrying too much about what is coming down the pike or how our problem fits into a greater, global community. If we do, it’s easy to become totally overwhelmed by the prospect of every possible outcome. However, a lack of foresight cannot be considered a virtue when the realities of single-mindedness are standing right in front of you  – back to back on Mondays and Tuesdays.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

The Storyteller

 

The wrestling hangover I suffered from post-King of Trios was a doozy. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that burnt out after a show before. Granted, it as 3 days of incredible wrestling coupled with the discovery of a promotion fairly close to where I live that expertly utilizes all of the aspects of wrestling that I adore: theatrics, linear storytelling, complex characters, and a suspension of disbelief. Never having spent quite so much time immersed in the pro wrestling community, I think I left with more questions than I entered, so I tried to sum it all up and ask Twitter for some thoughts. One response in particular stuck out:

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The front row was still too far away.

That blew my mind. I know that feeling.

This is not to say I want to be a wrestler. I can’t possibly stress enough that I don’t want to be a wrestler. Besides my confidence that my body would never withstand the things a wrestler must do, I also suffer from enough anxiety that my own fears about injuring whoever I got in there with would almost certainly come true. If I got hurt, that would suck. If I hurt someone else, I would be inconsolable. This is not the job for me.

I’m a storyteller. I have an overactive imagination that can outrun my own speech. I dream up things faster than I can put words to breath or pen to paper. My brain never shuts off, not even when I’m sleeping (see above mention of anxiety). My computer is full of half-baked notes and voice memos about characters and backstories, about plot lines and connective tissue; more of it than I could ever use in a lifetime, and more of it is being born every minute. This can make me awkward to encounter in person; I’m either going a mile a minute, or I’m quiet because my mind’s gone into overdrive and I’m hopelessly trying to retain even an ounce of whatever’s being created.

Being a fan of Lucha Underground has been incredible for me because it gives me something to focus on. I enjoy doing the Facelock Feministas podcast because I can take notes on the show and refer back to previous episodes, and know that there’s a definite amount of time before my hypothesis and questions are answered. I appreciate the interaction with the people both behind the scenes and the wrestlers themselves. But I have never been to The Temple in California, and with my wretched fear of flying, I may never get there. Attending Chikara’s King of Trios event last weekend sent my mind into a tailspin of ideas. Then someone posted a link to the history of the promotion and all of its characters and storylines. Now I’m in it.

I love the word “Nazmaldun”. I love the Hexed Men’s entrance music. I love Ophidian’s mask and Thunder Frog’s hammer. I love The Colony and all of their individual stories. I love how Cedric Alexander, Johnny Gargano, and Drew Gulak played to the story of them being “Team CWC”. I know there are many, many people like me who have a lightbulb go on in their heads when they see something like Chikara or Lucha Underground, the same way some people are inspired by reading Tolkien or seeing the musical Hamilton. If you can take that inspiration and channel it into your own work, that’s incredible. I’m sure some people would say, “well, J, why don’t you write fan fiction, or just write short stories inspired by the stuff you see at wrestling shows?” I could do that. But then the only way for an audience to consume that art is to read it. When I watch wrestling programs with intricate, deep storylines and characters, they are performance based and they inspire me to create art in the same forum. When I watch wrestling, I don’t think “I want to write stories that feel like that.” I think, “I want to help other people tell stories like that.”

I don’t know how I’m perceived by others in this community. I’m not sure it would serve me at all to care. I don’t know if people think I’m some weird superfan (I am), or some aggressive, opinionated feminist sjw (I’m that, too.) I certainly hope people don’t think I’m trolling wrestling shows for a lover, or to get famous. I’m not at a wrestling show to blow someone’s cover or get behind the curtain. Even with kayfabe in this strange limbo stage now, I prefer not to know who is behind a lucha libra mask if I can help it. It doesn’t enhance the experience for me to be “in the know” – unless that knowledge is how the performer has created their character and chosen to tell that character’s story. A discussion on the artform of wrestling and the storytelling that drives it is my idea of a good time.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was doing a project on “creators” and what was at the heart of their art. For me, it was about being an arts facilitator – a storyteller. I like being a writer, and don’t plan on giving up the creative non-fiction I write. But the thing I miss about theater is the interaction with other creators. The minds behind LU and Chikara are just as much arts facilitators. They are less playwrights, as playwrights create a thing that simply is, and will be interpreted differently by every director, actor, lighting designer, and creative team that takes the work on. Those behind a wrestling promotions stories know the character, more often than not, is intrinsically connected to the performer. One character is usually not played by many people, therefore it is a collaboration. A story has to consider the strengths of a performer and what they can bring as that particular character. When a performer moves on, so must a character. There are obviously exceptions, but this is truly the heart of places like Lucha Underground and Chikara – the art of wrestling in these promotions is an immaculately choreographed dance in which we, the audience, never see all of the work that went in, but simply witness the beautiful gliding the performers across the smooth surface of a tight storyline.

Is there a place in the professional wrestling world for a writer, with no aspirations to actually wrestle, to be the storyteller? Can wrestlers trust the foresight of someone whose sole responsibility to the art form is making sure the magic that is laid over the athleticism remain cohesive and untangled? Can this storyteller be a woman? I don’t know what the answer to any of these questions are. I do know that if any of them is “yes”, that’s where you’ll find me. I’ll be banging on the door with a notebook in her hand shouting “let me in – I have a great idea.” Until then, I’ll be the one taking notes in the back of wrestling shows.

The front row is still too far away.

– The Lady J Says